Saranda (or Sarandë, as it is written in Albanian) is all about location, location, location. It’s so close to Corfu, it can casually thumbs its nose at it and all those fools paying twice as much for the same crystal clear waters and delicious food. In fact, the easiest way to get to Saranda is to fly to Corfu, where you can easily find cheap flights on airlines such as Ryanair (from UK destinations) and Vueling (from Spain destinations). My flight from Barcelona to Corfu on Vueling was only $55 USD – not bad for a two-hour international flight during peak season! From Corfu, it’s a quick ferry ride over to Albania, at about $25-30 USD during peak season. Even better, this is the perfect hub to settle in, because there are tons of awesome day trips from Saranda you can take easily and cheaply.
Saranda isn’t a bad destination in its own right. It has its own beaches, which are enjoyable – though not comparable to the beauty of its neighbors an hour and a half north in the Albanian Riviera, which I’ll cover soon. It has some deliciously fresh seafood, which can be had for a song. I highly recommend Plazhi I Ri, where you can eat local Albanian dishes and fresh seafood for incredibly cheap. All the stuffed peppers for only 3 dollars? Um, why did I ever leave? You can also get delicious gyros – seriously, better than Greece – for about 1 dollar.
If you’re going to stay in any hostel while in Saranda, you’d be a fool not to book Saranda SR Backpackers. The host, Tomi, is one of the most legitimately kind and helpful people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Tomi gave a great preview of the incredible hospitality I’d experience the rest of my time in Albania. Upon hearing that the first few words out of my mouth were about Albanian food, he correctly ascertained that I was a little bit obsessed with food. That led to a promise from him to cook dinner for me the following night, and he treated me to delicious home-cooked pasta with a squid and tomato sauce. The night after that, he threw a beachside barbecue for the entire hostel, stuffing us full of pilaf, pork souvlaki, and shepherd salad, and only asking for the equivalent of a buck or two in return.
But the best thing about Saranda, aside from Tomi, is its easy access to lots of wonderful day trips, the likes of which you won’t really see anywhere but Albania. Ancient Roman ruins as old as the Coliseum with nary a soul around? Check. The bluest, coldest natural spring you’ll ever see? Yup. A city made of stones? Uh-huh. A lagoon full of islands with turquoise water, with delicious beachfront restaurants? Yeah, Albania’s got that too. So go ahead. Laugh at those suckers over in Greece.
Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage site that rightfully deserves the honor. It’s been ruled by Romans, Venetians, Byzantines, and Ottomans, all of whom have left their mark on Butrint. For being over 2,000 years old, it’s in great shape. You can see a theatre, a baptistery with one of the world’s best preserved mosaics, a basilica, and even ruins of an ancient suburb. The best part is that almost no one was there, even in the peak season (late August). I maybe saw 15 to 25 other tourists in the entire two hours I spent wandering the park. It’s also surrounded by a beautiful freshwater lake with crystal blue waters. Nature and history all in one… On a scale of one to life in prison, how illegal do you think it is to squat in a UNESCO site?
How to get there:
There are many bus stops scattered around the city. I recommend going to the first one, the one near the giant oak tree in the roundabout by the ferry (welcome to Albanian-style directions) so you can snag a seat – they will pack those Albanian buses in a way that puts the Japanese metro to shame. In case you want more Googeable directions, it’s at the intersection of Rruga Mitat Hoxha and Rruga Jonianet. It’ll cost 100 lek (less than $1 USD) and take about 1 hour to get to Butrint. Buses typically run every 2 hours. Ask your hostel or hotel when the bus will be running; it changes frequently. When you go back, the bus will pick you up outside of a restaurant called Livia near the front of the parking lot.
Ksamil is a place of insane natural beauty… unfortunately, everyone and their mother seems to know it. The beaches on the coast of the mainland are packed with umbrellas and chairs, and the small swimming area is absolutely jam-packed with children – not this former teacher’s idea of a relaxing beach day. So, why am I recommending it to you?
If you’re more prepared than I am – which, just by virtue of reading this, you already are – you can skirt the crowds if you get creative. Just bring a dry bag for anything you don’t want to get wet, or leave your electronics at home and just carry a bit of cash in a Ziploc bag. You can easily swim to the other islands that make up Ksamil – there are virtually no waves and the distance is easily swimmable, even for weaker swimmers. Once you get to these islands, you’ll be rewarded for your minimal effort you expended with a far more private beach experience.
How to get there:
Follow the same directions as above as if going to Butrint, but tell the bus driver you want to get off at Ksamil. Many other beach goers will be getting off at the same time as you, so don’t worry, it’ll be pretty obvious. The bus will pick you up on the side of the road outside the café and hair salon, just flag it down. The same price applies – 100 lek, or about 80 cents. Again, ask about bus times – they’re about every two hours, but everything changes quickly in Albania, so this should not be treated as gospel.
You can also continue on from Butrint if you’ve gone there first, which I recommend! Just get off at Ksamil with the rest of the beach crowd. Buses return every two hours – there should be a schedule inside the bus that you can peek at – or it should be super easy to hitchhike back, if that’s something you’re comfortable with. I hitchhiked several times in Albania, usually just short distances, and it was always easy to get a ride and people were incredibly friendly.